Under Construction: Projects At Two Of The World’s Most Important Museums

There are some interesting construction projects ahead for the expansion of two already enormous, and enormously important, art institutions.

Following a recent renovation of part of its existing ground floor to expand its exhibition space, the National Gallery in London has set its sights on redeveloping St. Vincent House, located behind the museum’s Sainsbury Wing. The institution purchased the building almost 20 years ago, and it currently houses not only museum staff, but also paying tenants, including an hotel, a restaurant, a parking garage, and other offices. The leases of these tenants will be coming to an end within the next few years, allowing the museum to decide what to do next with the space.

St. Vincent House is one of those Brutalist architectual travesties that scar the downtowns of most of our cities. The only reason you’ve probably never seen it, if you’ve been to London, is that it’s mercifully well-hidden from Trafalgar Square. The stained, exposed aggregate concrete, rusting and peeling metal, crumbling brick, and utter lack of symmetry, grace, or proportion will be familiar to anyone who has ever visited, say, a college library built between about 1950 and 1980.

Since the building is tucked away, presumably there will be a reduced pressure upon the National Gallery to make it an architectural showstopper. Less visibility means less of a need to spend a fortune building something which most people will only experience from the inside, via a possible pedestrian bridge connecting the site to the Sainsbury Wing. This is the opposite of the problem faced by The Prado in Madrid during their recent expansion, which is not quite finished yet.

The buildings which The Prado has been expanding into were located not next door, but rather on a hillside directly behind the main bulk of the museum. Two of the them are the former throne room and ballroom of the Palacio del Buen Retiro, built in the 17th century. They were the only parts left standing after the rest of the palace was torn down, following destruction by Napoleon’s troops. The ballroom has already been integrated into the expanded Prado; the redevelopment of the former throne room was recentlly awarded to British starchitect Norman Foster.

As part of the The Prado’s expansion, a vast underground entrance, exhibition, and concessions area connecting these buildings by cutting into the hillside were designed by Spanish starchitect Rafael Moneo, connecting the buildings by cutting into the hillside. For reasons which I can’t fathom, Moneo was awarded the Pritzker Prize for archtiecture in 1996, and the Prince of Asturias prize for his contributions to Spanish architecture a few years later. If you are unfamiliar with his name, you are nevertheless familiar with his work, for Moneo is the designer of the monstruous Cathedral of Los Angeles, California, known among those who loathe both it and the now-disgraced Cardinal who built it as the “Taj Mahoney”.

Part of Moneo’s plan for The Prado expansion called for the disassembly of a former Baroque monastery in poor repair, which stood next to the Palace. The structure was reassembled inside a rather dull brick building whose interior otherwise reminds one of a small Marriott hotel circa 1994, which sits next to the former monastery chapel (now a parish church). While the chapel is not particularly remarkable, as far as the grandeur of Spanish ecclesiastical architecture goes, sitting next to this squat, red cube, it looks like an architectural masterpiece.

Being a Midcentury building, St. Vincent House has neither the historic pedigree nor the architectural grandeur of the spaces taken over by The Prado. Moreover, the construction timeframe is still some years away, until the leases run out, and so the museum can engage in the kind of discussion which involves long-term planning. Herein lies a real opportunity for the National Gallery to improve its offerings and focus on what its mission will be for the next few decades.

Of course, there is a hidden danger, as well. For sadly, as much as people of good will and common sense loathe the sort of Brutalism displayed by buildings like St. Vincent House, others actually love this stuff, and are becomnig increasingly vociferous about preserving it. The fact that more and more of these buildings are meeting their deserved end – and not before time, as they are falling to bits – spurs some among the (supposed) intellgentsia to argue that they should be preserved.

Back in 1984, Prince Charles almost singlehandedly stopped the proposed expansion of the National Gallery, by giving a totally unexpected speech in which he described the proposed extension of the Sainsbury Wing as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend.” The left and the art press – but I repeat myself – have never forgiven him for it. The Sainsbury Wing as built was a tamer, more modest structure than the monstrosity shown in the image accompanying this post, which is what had been selected. What a truly great thing for Western civilization that this strange, Martian mining colony headquarters never came to be, even if the building constructed in its place is more interesting on the inside than it is on the outside.

Last year Prince Charles became the first Royal Patron of the National Gallery, which in British philanthropic circles usually means that executives will tend to pay a bit more attention to his thoughts and opinions regarding their activities. In addition, with all due respect to Queen Elizabeth, one can only assume that sometime within the next few years the Prince will finally become King Charles III, perhaps around the same time that the museum will be taking on its next major expansion. Let us hope that such influence will not only result in the wiping of St. Vincent House from the face of the planet, but also the construction of something sensible, serviceable, and in keeping with the fabric of the rest of the National Gallery.

Original proposal for the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery

Starchitect: The Destroyer of Worlds

In an interview later recalling the first successful nuclear test carried out at Los Alamos in 1945, Robert Oppenheimer famously quoted a line from the epic Hindu poem, the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”  An apt description of what he achieved, the line may sound like the sort of bombastic speech one has come to expect from fantasy films and comic books.  In reality, the quotation is even more contextually appropriate for those who destroy in order to create, for it comes at a moment in which a prince realizes that his enemies on the other side of a battlefield are his family and friends.  The prince is reluctant to attack and try to kill them, but he is eventually persuaded by his charioteer to go ahead and slaughter them anyway, as it is his destiny.

In their sponsorship of much of contemporary architecture, this same sense of prideful, purpose-bent destruction seems to have infected the minds of many of those running our public and private institutions.  In the effort to appear hip and trendy, thereby attracting the fleeting attentions of donors and visitors, too many appear to have been possessed by the idea that in order to improve what they have, they must destroy or so alter it as to ruin what they possess.  Oftentimes they are helped in this endeavour by “starchitects”: those world-famous individuals who provide, albeit temporarily, a sense of cachet to a substantial building project.

One very well-known exemplar of this phenomenon is architect Frank Gehry, whose work and ideas I have deplored on this site many times.  A decade ago, Gehry was retained to add an extension to the Corcoran Gallery of Art here in downtown Washington, just across the street from the Old Executive Office Building.  The design, which would have tacked a huge bit of Gehry’s signature crumpled metal onto one of the most elegant Beaux-Arts buildings in the city, fortunately never came to fruition.  This was thanks to many factors, not least of which was the combination of public opposition and the inability of the Corcoran itself to raise the enormous sums required for building a Gehry project.

This week a group of students, faculty, and others filed a Complaint and Petition To Intervene in D.C. Superior Court, seeking to stop the trustees from breaking up the Corcoran.  Although only mentioning the proposed Gehry extension in passing, the pleadings focus on the inability to raise enough funds to renovate the existing museum, known as the Flagg Building, as evidence of the board’s neglect of its duties.  It may seem axiomatic or common sense to state that you don’t start building a new wing for your museum if you can’t pay for the upkeep of the old one, but the siren song of having a famous architect place his imprimatur on your institution appears to be too strong for many to resist.

Another “starchitect” well-known to the intelligentsia is Norman Foster, who turned the courtyard between the American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery here in D.C. into a humid, chlorine-scented glass atrium reminiscent of a circa 1986 Marriott resort hotel.  The last time I strolled through the Kogod Courtyard, as the space is now known, I experienced rather an unpleasant sensation, as if I had wandered into an elderly lady’s bathroom.  I also wondered why on earth you would place such a massive, humidity-collecting space right next to two buildings containing art which is highly sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity.  Lord Foster’s work is yet another example of how a structure may look cool, but makes things worse, not better, for the institution that commissioned it.

Yesterday the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow’s great art museum, announced that it had selected a local Russian architect to design its extension, after a very public falling-out with Lord Foster.  The Pushkin and local architects split over Lord Foster’s ideas for the expansion, which would have involved demolition of several pre-Revolutionary buildings on the site, and his refusal to come to Moscow to oversee the gigantic project. which will cost at least $640 million.  For some reason, in this context I can’t help but think of supermodel Linda Evangelista’s quote, “I don’t get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day.”  To be honest, the design for the new addition is rather inappropriate as well, but I suppose at least it will cost less, since the architect is not at brand-name level as was his predecessor.

Meanwhile, a report in Roll Call this week indicates that investigators from the House Appropriations Committee are now looking into the efforts of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, which selected a rather atrocious and expensive design by Frank Gehry to try to build on the National Mall.  Thanks to efforts by the National Civic Arts Society and others, it is looking increasingly unlikely that Gehry’s carbuncle will ever scar the Nation’s front yard.  Yet unfortunately, a few hundred miles away, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has just announced that Gehry’s proposed renovation and expansion of their magnificent temple to the arts, world-famous even to non-art lovers from the “Rocky” films, will involve alteration of its beloved steps in order to accommodate Gehry’s plans.  Although most of Gehry’s work will be subterranean, it will cost the city between $350-500 million *if* there are no overruns.  In a town still reeling from the recession, this seems rather a lot to take on at the moment.

This institutional obsession with engaging in destruction for the sake of self-promotion is a disturbing way of going about getting people’s attention, a bit like getting a face or a neck tattoo.  In light of the fact that so often the architects being selected for these projects are chosen because of their fame, rather than their merits as a talented and competent practitioner of architecture, engaging one of them for a project which is supposed to last for generations seems the height of folly. In destroying what such institutions are supposed to be preserving and honoring, the only purpose they serve is the further inflation of their own egos.

Entrance steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Entrance steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art